INTD Perils of the Normal

This course will interrogate the formulations and functions of the Normal.  As an organizing principle, it works in barely perceptible and overtly tyrannical ways; as a concept, it enjoys the appearance of timelessness and universality.  The tyranny of the normal is precisely what prevents us from heeding the historian Canguilhem's challenge to embrace the extraordinary and the transgressive.  Our lives, from beginning to end, fall under its influence; we cannot escape normality's reach.  To make our interrogation of this enormous and pervasive topic manageable we will focus our attention on a familiar – and seemingly stable – object: the body.  Despite all that our individual bodies share in common, differences in shape, size and color or gender, behavior and desire can elicit wildly opposing reactions ranging from sympathy and disgust to affection and violence.  Whatever the response, however, concepts of normal and, by extension, abnormal underwrite it.

What is to prevent us from supposing life capable not only of exceptions occasioned by cause, but of spontaneous transgressions of its own habits?
-George Canguilhem

The body's ability to engender disparate responses stems in large part from the various and contradictory ways the discourses of science, medicine, law, and religion have invested it with meaning.  By drawing boundaries across and around the body's surfaces and orifices and by condemning particular acts and expressions, these discourses establish what is and is not normal behavior for individuals to engage in with their own and others' bodies.  Each of the literary and filmic narratives selected for this seminar tackles one or more of the discourses at work in maintaining the normal's sway over us.  Because this process lies at the core of how we understand and conduct ourselves, the journey ahead requires a willingness to ask difficult questions and to accept tentative and ambiguous answers.

The war against "abnormality" began with a fear of difference and eventuated in a tyranny of the Normal.
-Leslie Fielder

Reading List:

Katherine Dunn,  Geek Love: A Novel

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka, The Trial

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt

Toni Morrison, Sula

Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener

Jose Saramago, Blindness

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

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